Monday, August 30, 2010

Neoconservatism flayed

Long operating as a kind of stealth force, the neoconservative movement began to take shape in the 1970s. At that time a number of intellectuals, originally leftists or liberals, began to doubt the effectiveness of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and those that arose in its wake. They held that some programs, such as affirmative action and public housing, were actually worsening the situation they purported to help. Neoconservatives also favored a vigorous, proactive foreign policy, at first with regard to the Soviet Union, then in the Middle East. Unlike libertarians and paleoconservatives, neocons are comfortable with the welfare state, though they seek to bend it to their ends.

The late German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss ranks as the magus of the movement. though most of the actual organizing has been done under the aegis of the New York editor and journalist Irving Kristol, who excelled in popularizing the ideas. Other influential neocons include Irving’s son Bill Kristol, David Brooks, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Allan Bloom, and Harry V. Jaffa. The leading neoconservatives organs have been Commentary, The Public Interest, (founded by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol) and The Weekly Standard (edited by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes). Several think tanks, including the Project for the New American Century, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and the Henry Jackson Society, serve as incubators for neocon ideas. Collectively, these institutions function as a kind of “invisible university,” communicating laterally and externally to advance the cause.

Although it tends to align itself with the Republicans, neoconservatism is not an organized political group or faction of one. Somewhat disingenuously, its adepts like to term it a “persuasion” or “mood,” denying that it is an ideology. Yet neoconservatism most certainly is an ideology, in some ways an insidious one.

Now comes “Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea” (Paradigm Books, 2010). C. Bradley Thompson, the principal author, has been assisted by Yaron Brook. Since Thompson (an academic who teaches as Clemson University) was formerly a foot soldier in the neocon army, this is a “breaking-ranks” book, somewhat reminiscence of the Cold War classic “The God That Failed” (1949).

As the authors acknowledge, the obituary is somewhat premature, but with the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, both heavily backed by the neocons, they are clearly losing ground. “Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea” seeks to expose what the neocons call their philosophy of governance--their plan for governing America. Studying the texts with great tenacity, the authors provide the most subtle analysis I have seen of the complex connections that link the neocons with their guru, the University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss, who died in 1973. Thompson and Brooks believe that the claims of the neocons to support American interests are a sham, and that the movement is actually a species of anti-Americanism. In fact, the supporters of the trend show little enthusiasm for the traditions of the American founding. In this vein they ridicule the aspirations to limited government that libertarians and many paleoconservatives derive from this heritage. Instead, they favor big government, providing that, in their wisdom, they can somehow pull the levers of power. In this aim they do not shrink, according to Thompson and Brook, from advocating the deployment of fraud and force. Despising the masses, these elitists believe that the herd of ordinary folks, who are incapable of any philosophical dimension, must be controlled by propagating “noble lies” among them, especially those rooted in religion. Although many, probably most of the neocons are of Jewish extraction, they are typically nonobservant.

Because of their elitism and deviousness, Thompson and Brook conclude that the neocon program is crypto-fascist. This is a serious charge, but the writers support it by showing Leo Strauss’s connection with Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, both later implicated with Nazism, and his admiration for Mussolini.

Largely absent from the book is any discussion of the pronounced turn of the neocons towards defending the state of Israel, even when its interests diverge from those of the United States. The authors do not discuss the key neocon paper of 1998, “A Clean Break,” produced for Benjamin Netanyahu and urging an invasion of Iraq. Having infiltrated the Bush administration, the neocons were able to implement this disastrous idea in 2003. The omission of the Israeli connection is curious, because Yaron Brook is in fact an Israeli, though he has lived in the US for a good many years. Evidently, the omission of this major theme reflects a deliberate decision on the part of the authors.

Early on in the book, the authors make a significant blooper when they relocate the famous Alcove One (in a cafeteria where a number of individuals met who were to become key neocons) from City College in Upper Manhattan to Brooklyn College (p. 16).

More worrisome, though, is the fact that both authors profess to be followers of Ayn Rand. Yaron Brook in fact serves as the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. (He must not be confused with the neocon journalist David Brooks, who receives many hard knocks in the course of the volume.) On the whole, however, Thompson and Brook keep their eye on the ball, and the Randian element is not obtrusive.

These criticisms notwithstanding, this book appears to be the weightiest analysis of neonconservatism yet published. Regrettably, this noxious movement is not dead yet, but incisive interventions like this one should hasten its demise.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow you really dont like israeli's do you?

2:02 AM  

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